It seems that no matter what harm white America causes us, many Black people choose to forgive time and time again - and this has plenty of folks asking an important question: Why?
After the world witnessed Brandt Jean hug Amber Guyger - the former Dallas police officer who killed his brother, Botham Jean - many praised the young man for choosing forgiveness, while others condemned him for doing so.
The history of oppression, survival, and forgiveness in our community can lend insight.
When Christianity was imparted to our enslaved ancestors, it was as a tool of control masked in spiritualism. Used widely as a means to justify the cruel system of slavery, the Bible conditioned many Black folks to believe they deserved this treatment - and that adherence to scripture was the only path to salvation. Finding salvation, though, required one to follow the doctrine of forgiveness.
That meant forgiving the very slaveholders that brutalized them; that forced them into backbreaking labor; that killed them.
Forgiveness, then, meant survival.
From that perspective, forgiveness is an interesting phenomenon of releasing - even forgetting - the weight of perpetual oppression. Ignoring or letting go of white supremacy’s impact has been how countless Black people haven’t buckled beneath the weight of being Black in America.
Through forgiving, some of our ancestors not only survived but found redemption from what they learned was the sin of being Black. That conditioning has lived through Jim Crow, Civil Rights, and still breathes today.
This isn’t to say all Black folks saw Blackness as an impediment.
As writer Kiese Laymon noted on being raised in his Black church, “[It] taught me that loving white folks in spite of their investment in our terror was our only chance of not becoming them morally.”
You could say that loving and forgiving, from this vantage point, was how you didn’t become a monster.
Brandt Jean chose to forgive the woman who stole the life of his brother. During his victim impact statement, he told Guyger, “I love you as a person and I don’t wish anything bad on you.” Perhaps Christ compelled him. Perhaps it’s the only way he’ll survive the burden of white persecution.
But, as his mother stated, forgiveness does not erase oppression and the need for criminal justice reform. “I don’t want the community to be mistaken by what [happened] in the courtroom. Forgiveness for us as Christians is a healing for us, but as my husband said, there are consequences. It does not mean that everything else we have suffered has to go unnoticed.”
Tangible change cannot happen when we forgive then forget. Change comes when the system is relentlessly held accountable.
When it’s held accountable, maybe we won’t have to carry the burden of oppression anymore. Maybe we can do more than just survive.